Note: This story originally appeared in the Star-Telegram on April 13, 2008, in a special section about the 50th anniversary of Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky competition victory in Moscow.
WASHINGTON -- After 50 years, memories of the young Texas pianist who briefly thawed the Cold War have understandably faded in a post-Soviet Russia that is moving further and further from its communist past.
But among many Russians still old enough to remember his triumphant 1958 performance in the Moscow Conservatory, Van Cliburn remains an iconic figure, beloved for both his talent and his Texas charm.
Sergei Khrushchev affectionately recalls how his father, Nikita, then the Soviet premier, wrapped the 6-foot-4-inch pianist in a bear hug after the performance. The younger Khrushchev, now a senior fellow at Brown University, still has the 8 mm home-movie footage that he shot of his father and Cliburn one sunny morning at the Khrushchev dacha.
Cliburn's enduring Russian fan base was on display four years ago when he returned to Moscow at age 70 for an encore performance in the conservatory's Great Hall. Nearly 1,700 spectators thundered their approval with a standing ovation, and scores thronged to the stage to have Cliburn sign their ticket stubs or programs.
I covered the concert for the Star-Telegram and was struck by the warm admiration that many Russians still felt toward Cliburn nearly a half-century after his breakthrough performance at the height of the Cold War.
The concert was sold out days in advance, and latecomers obligingly paid scalper prices of up to 5,000 rubles, about $170.
Galina Filimova, 72, was in the audience in 1958 and brought her 21-year-old grandson to the repeat performance to show him the gifted pianist who had once provided a few hours of musical escape from the drab tedium of Soviet life.
"It all seemed so far away from the everyday routine," she said in recalling that first concert. "You felt like you were in some magic land."
Political scientists say that Cliburn -- known as "Vanyusha" among his Russian admirers -- was one of the first in a progression of cultural ambassadors who helped soften attitudes toward the U.S. and exposed Russians to Western life. Smuggled rock 'n' roll tapes and jazz broadcasts over Voice of America also influenced the shifting attitudes.
"I think people were impressed that you had an American who had such talent and was able to interpret so well a Russian composer," said Joseph Nye, dean emeritus at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "That broke the usual characterization of Americans as crude warmongers."
Sergei Khrushchev was 24 -- a little older than the 23-year-old Cliburn -- when the American won Moscow's first International Tchaikovsky Competition by performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, written by the legendary Russian composer in 1874-75.
"Father went to the competition and went backstage to shake his hand," Khrushchev recalled. The stocky, diminutive premier, his son recalled, was overshadowed by the towering pianist and joked: "I don't know how they feed you in Texas to make you so tall."
Cliburn's victory was particularly impressive given the prevailing attitude "that nobody in the world can be better than the Soviets," Khrushchev said. "Then appeared this young Texan -- he's better."
With his talent, genial personality and engaging smile, Cliburn was instantly engulfed in a nationwide outpouring of admiration. "Van Cliburn became a hero in the Soviet Union," Khrushchev recalled. "There were two real heroes in the Soviet Union [at that time] -- Van Cliburn and Fidel Castro."
The Soviet leader, who later became known to millions of Americans for a shoe-banging tirade at the United Nations, took an immediate liking to the young Texan, said his son. He took Cliburn on a cruise of the Moscow River and showed him his prized vegetable garden at the Khrushchev dacha outside Moscow.
The younger Khrushchev, who at the time worked on guidance systems for Soviet cruise missiles, snapped photographs and took home movies. A photograph of his father with Cliburn adorns his office at Brown.
Sergei Khrushchev met Cliburn again five years ago when he went to Fort Worth to give a lecture. "He's a person whom Russians like," he said. "They like him -- and they like his music."